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Riefenstahl Ruckus

Jodie Foster protested over biopic of Hitler's favorite filmmaker.


by Naomi Pfefferman

November 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Director Jodie Foster wants to make a feature film about Leni Riefenstahl, above,  saying, "No other woman in the 20th century has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously."

Director Jodie Foster wants to make a feature film about Leni Riefenstahl, above, saying, "No other woman in the 20th century has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously."

A small but vocal group of demonstrators rallied outside Paramount Pictures in Hollywood last week, wielding signs and chanting slogans like "Jodie Foster wants to glorify a Nazi" and "Stop Jodie's project now."

They were protesting a proposed biopic of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker, planned by Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures, which is housed on the studio's lot. Oscar-winning Foster is hoping to produce and star in the as-yet-unnamed movie, now being scripted by "Philadelphia" scribe Ron Nyswaner.

One would expect that a half-dozen demonstrators, most of them from the Jewish Defense League, wouldn't capture a studio's attention, much less elicit an in-person response from publicity chiefs. But as the participants picketed and shouted, not one but two top Paramount publicists emerged to make statements about the controversial movie.

Nancy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of worldwide publicity, and Tim Webber, manager of corporate publicity, informed the ralliers the studio has nothing to do with the film. "Paramount is renting space to Ms. Foster, and she is doing her film here, but it's not a Paramount picture," Webber told The Journal. "Her production company is here on the lot, but we have many companies on the lot."

Indeed, the movie is already drawing criticism from members of the Jewish community. "A lot of people in Hollywood are horrified at this," Arnold Schwartzman, who won an Oscar for the Simon Wiesenthal Center documentary, "Genocide," told the Daily News. "There will be many objections."

Diane Jacobs, 79, said she attended the recent rally because "I'm a survivor, I lost my whole family in the camps, and I'm highly offended that Jodie Foster wants to make a movie about this woman."

Foster has insisted that the German filmmaker needs to be portrayed. "Leni Riefenstahl's story is something I have been dying to do for a long time," she said in a written statement. "I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime. There is no other woman in the 20th century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously. She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and her work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany."

Foster told the London Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, that Riefenstahl was "a tremendously gifted woman" who "made a lot of ugly choices at a terrible and horrible time in history." She told the Daily News that she has met with Riefenstahl and regards her life as "a moral tale for us all. She is an extraordinary woman, sharp as a tack and as beautiful as she ever was, with a tremendous body."

Now 98, Riefenstahl was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin and first aspired to become a dancer. Switching to film, she starred in and co-directed several exquisitely shot German "mountain" films and fell in with the Nazis.

She remains best known for her brilliant Third Reich propaganda films: Her documentary, "Olympia," shot during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, earned her a spot on Time magazine's cover and is considered one of the best sports documentaries ever made. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself awarded Riefenstahl the German National Film Prize for "Triumph of the Will," which depicts Hitler as God-like and is widely credited for selling National Socialism to the masses. Goebbels lauded Riefenstahl's womanly charms in his diaries.

The filmmaker, who has insisted "I was not a Nazi, I was an artist," was, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, interned by the Allies for three years after World War II but later cleared of any wrongdoing. While she never made any other movies, she's published well-received books of photography on undersea life and Sudanese tribesmen in recent decades. At the age of 97, she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan that left her with broken ribs.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, Riefenstahl insists that she was naive about Hitler; that she's "ashamed" she didn't notice the persecution of the Jews; and that she never wanted to make "Triumph of the Will." "And I say [to Hitler], 'No, no, no, no,'" she recounts. "And he says, 'Please, Leni, one film, one film of the rally in Nuremberg'... And journalists and people say that I have made the film because I am ambitious."

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center believes just that. He cites the archival photographs he's seen of Riefenstahl with Hitler: "She looks infatuated with him," he asserts. "She's basking in the glory and the attention."

Hier, who refused to pay Riefenstahl for the use of "Triumph" footage in "Genocide," is concerned about Foster's perceived admiration for the filmmaker. "If you start on that basis, it's hard to be truthful about her during the Hitler years," he explains. "Anybody doing a film on Leni Riefenstahl needs to show that she was infatuated with the Fuhrer and was his chief propagandist. To have assisted a person responsible for the greatest genocide in human history and to have been at his arm is not very complimentary."

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